From driving a quiet horse to collecting bridge tolls: why benefits advice matters

In 1928 a furnace man had a stroke. He could no longer continue in his job so he claimed Sickness Benefit. He claimed benefit for several years but eventually the benefits decision makers decided that he was now fit for light work. They suggested that he could ‘drive a quiet horse and do goods delivery work of a quiet character’.  It was not clear how he was supposed to find a job where a ‘quiet horse’ was the main requirement. Fortunately for him, he was able to appeal this decision. At the hearing the appeal judges decided that he was unable to work and he was able to keep his benefit.

In my research on the meaning of ‘incapacity for work’ across the twentieth century I have found many examples of suggestions as to the kind of work that claimants might be able to do. It seems fairly simple. If someone was unable to carry on with their ‘usual work’, it was reasonable to expect them to consider what other work they might be able to do. When we look at the kinds of jobs that decision makers suggested we see that these suggestions were strongly influenced by social expectations about work.  In the early twentieth century almost all suggested occupations were different for men and women:  so men were frequently told that they could work as caretakers or watchmen while women were expected to do domestic work.  A few occupations were suggested for both men and women:  lift attendants, shop work and clerical work, although the language for these differed.  Men were told that they might be able to manage a shop, while women were told they could be shop assistants.  This is not at all surprising for the time but it illustrates that the definition of ‘incapacity for work’ was dependent on different assumptions about what men and women could do.  It was never suggested to men that they could work as domestic servants and it was never suggested to women that they could do the range of jobs usually expected of men.

Into the 1980s: bridge toll attendants and car park supervisors

Jumping forward to the late twentieth century and Invalidity Benefit decision makers began to use standardised suggestions for jobs which benefits claimants might be able to do.  From my own experience of working as a welfare rights officer in central Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s, the then Department of Health and Social Security often suggested that claimants could work as bridge toll attendants. No doubt the DHSS expected people to work on the Forth Road Bridge, which had staffed toll gates at the time.  Despite the fact that vacancies on the bridge tolls were probably few and far between, it was rarely the case that claimants were able to manage these jobs.  We often represented people with a range of back problems, which, combined with a lack of relevant experience or sometimes appropriate numeracy skills, made this kind of post particularly unsuitable. 

Creative Commons Licence [Some Rights Reserved]   © Copyright David Dixon and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

In other parts of the country the jobs suggested would include attendants at car parks, swimming pools and museums, on the assumption that these were ‘sedentary’ jobs that would be manageable by people with a range of physical impairments.  Often these jobs were unsuitable because they involved sitting for long periods, lifting and bending, a range of numeracy and interpersonal skills and sometimes the need to act in an emergency as a first aider or security guard.  This is not to suggest that people claiming Invalidity Benefit could never do these jobs. However, in individual cases, the suggestions were often unsuitable.  With the help of advisers, claimants could challenge these assumptions when they appealed, using evidence about the reality of the work suggested.  This allowed people, who had great difficult in finding suitable work, to keep their much needed benefits.

Rules for incapacity benefits have changed dramatically since the 1980s and now we have the draconian Employment and Support Allowance.  There is still a pressing need for advice and the right of appeal against unreasonable decisions.

Choosing names in research

I’m finally writing up the book from my archival project and I have to decide how I am going to deal with names in the archive papers. At an early stage of my project I decided that I would anonymise the people in the archive cases. This comes from my own social science training which is based on an assumption that we should anonymise any personal data derived from research. Writers in other disciplines do not always do this. Historians usually use real names, although not always. There seems to be a cut-off around the twentieth century when social historians sometimes start using pseudonyms. Legal scholars usually use real names because they are usually dealing with legal cases already in the public domain, where people’s names are part of the case name. Some social scientists and oral historians also argue for an ethical position of using real names. But I find this difficult. The information in the archive files is personal and not very far in the past. It is unlikely that any of the people in these files is still alive today and that is reflected in the status of the files in the archives. The files are ‘open’ – available to anyone to look at but I don’t believe that this gives me permission to use their real names. All of them may have living relatives and people who knew them who would be concerned about their personal details being made public. Some, of course, might be delighted to find an archive with their grandmother or great grandfather named in it, which would enable them to pursue their family history but I don’t think it is my role to expose people in this way. On top of this, around half of the case papers that I am using are already anonymised as they have been published in collections of anonymised legal cases. I don’t know the people’s names at all. Or at least not all of them. For some of these anonymised cases, I’ve also identified an archive file, which gives me the real names of the people in the anonymised published cases. For a very small number of the cases I am looking at, there is a higher level court case or a newspaper report which carries the name of the protaganists. These are fully in the public domain and traditions of legal writing require that I use the full names for these.
But I have made my decision to anonymise all the other cases and intend to stick with it. The question now is what to do when I discuss the people I’m writing about. Until now, in any published papers or conference presentations, I have referred to people by the case number of their legal case only and have not attempted to bring them to life by giving them names. Now that I am writing the book I feel that it would make for easier reading if the people had names. So how to go about choosing them.

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Choosing names the old-fashioned way

When I’ve carried out interview based research in the past I used surnames from a local telephone directory. I knew that this created problems: surnames convey ethnicity, geography and religious associations. All of my interviewees had been white and Scottish or English so I could be fairly confident that names I had chosen would be associated with that identity. First names are even more clearly marked for gender, ethnicity, religion and social class and they are associated with different generations, according to popularity in naming patterns. So I found first names using information from the National Records of Scotland assigning age appropriate first names. I also tried to avoid names of celebrities, fictional characters or well known real people (although this was somewhat dependent on my rather useless knowledge of celebrities). I was happy with the result and my renamed interviewees became real characters, who I felt, began to become alive in my writing.

Wirecaester Barlow or James Bond

So how to go about this process with my archive material? Something else has come along in the way of technical support since I carried out previous research. I’m currently using scrivener software to draft my book and it has a ‘name generator’ built in. This allows writers to select from a very wide range of apparently ethnically and gender appropriate names. I’ve been searching for those of English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish origins, given the backgrounds of most of the people in my data. This produces some unusual names: Wirecaester Barlow, Sped Hell, Oxnaleah Flax? I don’t know how scrivener generates these names but they seem a little unlikely for England in the early 20th century and there don’t seem to be any date filters on the name generator unless you’re looking for Ancient Egyptian, Anglo Saxon or Shakespearean names. So I’m experimenting with names from the British 1881 census, available electronically, which produces the more likely sounding: Alfred Jones, Thomas Hudson and Annie Norton. Though my most recent search also produced James Bond, so I’ll still have to watch out for the celebrities and well known fictional characters.

postscript

Since writing this blog post, I changed my mind about how to use names in the book from this project. Although I had an interesting time creating pseudonyms for the people I discuss in the book, I decided, in the end, to stick with the form Mr B, Mrs E etc. This allowed me to keep the same surname initials for real people whose names I knew, so they remain relatively anonymous without confusing the historical record. This also means that I could use a consistent form for people whose names I knew and those I did not. The way we describe people changes over time and, today, there is much debate about titles and gender pronouns. Personally, I do not use titles today which mark a woman’s married status.  However, in the book I used the titles ‘Mr’, ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’ in the book to reflect the use of titles in most of the twentieth century.

Disability Research Network

I’m part of a network of researchers interested in all aspects of disability, based in the University of Edinburgh. Our members’ interests range across many subjects, including social science, music, education, psychology and history. We’re launching our new website at an exciting free event on Wednesday 15th June. Why not join us?

See our new Website here

 

Connecting the Turra Coo and women’s work

Turra Coo plateWhy would someone give me a plate with a cow on it? This was a gift from a family member, recognising my obsession with all things to do with the 1911 National Insurance Act. The plate commemorates the incident of the ‘Turra Coo’ in 1913. The National Insurance Act required employers and workers to make weekly contributions from their wages in return for sickness and unemployment benefits and the right to health care. Some employers objected to the principle of making contributions, including a farmer from Turriff in Aberdeenshire. When he refused to pay contributions for his farm workers, his cow (the Turra Coo) was impounded by the local sheriff officers, leading to a local riot and the cow becoming an emblem of local protest. For the full story, see here
A hundred years on from this farmer’s protest, the Coo has now become a tourist attraction, with a statue in Turriff town centre*:

Turra Coo 2015

Turra Coo 2015

and a commemorative plate. So now I have my plate but I’m not sure I really want the plate on my office wall. The problem with the Coo is that it symbolises objection to the Act and the principle of National Insurance. There are a lot of problems with National Insurance as a principle for funding the welfare state but it has its supporters too and, at least in 1911, it provided the basics of health care and sickness benefits for low paid workers, particularly women.

Connecting the Turra coo to women’s precarious work

But I found another connection between the Coo and my research at the Social History Society conference last week. Here I had the privilege of hearing a paper by Valerie Hall on women farmers in North East Scotland in the late 19th and early 20th century. Professor Hall’s paper described the complex working lives of women, who combined domestic work, running the farm and a variety of entrepreneurial activities, including selling eggs and dairy products, breeding dogs, cattle and prize chickens, while also bringing up many children and grandchildren. Her presentation including some lovely pictures of cows and references to the Aberdeenshire ‘Doric’ – I couldn’t help but think of the Turra Coo. More important to my research though was the clear argument that it was not easy, or indeed possible, to identify where ‘work’ and ‘not work’ happened in these women’s lives. On the same panel we also heard from Professor Dianne Newell who talked about the indigenous women in British Columbia at around the same time, combining their ‘work’ in the salmon canning factories with household maintenance and ‘doorstep entrepreneurship’: making traditional baskets and rugs and trading these for cash or goods with middle class white tourists. Again the division between ‘work’ and ‘not work’ was blurred in an endless and seasonal struggle for survival.
The women described in these two conference papers lived in a different era and in worlds which have long changed but the reality of the complexity of women’s working lives continues, particularly for poor women in precarious part-time employment. In some ways these papers look like a reinforcement of the gendered idea that a ‘woman’s work is never done’, particularly a poor woman’s work, but for me they illustrate a rather different point.  Welfare benefits, and particularly incapacity benefits, depend on an understanding of what we mean by ‘work’.  Women’s working lives, and many disabled people’s lives, do not fit a conventional idea of work.  If welfare states are dependent on the idea that people (men or women) should ‘work’ and that their entitlement to benefits and services should be conditional on that, then we must question conventional, gendered assumptions about what constitutes ‘work’.
So thank you to the Turra Coo plate for helping me to make these links.

*thanks to Viv Cree for the photograph

Bringing archives to life

Bureaucratic registers often contain scanty details about the ordinary people they record. Further digging can bring these to life.  The fascinating ‘Seeing our History’ project does this.  The project traced the lives of blind people living in Edinburgh and south east Scotland in the early years of the twentieth century.  Starting with the names and details on a ‘Register of the Outdoor Blind’ between 1903 and 1911, researchers traced the parents, children, lives and deaths of blind and partially sighted people on the Register.  The project’s findings have been published in two books, ‘Feeling our History’ and ‘Hearing our History’ and a series of podcasts. You can find out more about the project, the publications and podcasts on its webpage here:  Insight Radio

The researchers unearthed details about blind people’s work and family lives, which echoed some of the material that I have been finding in my research on early twentieth century sickness benefits.  A recurring theme across my research, and arising also in the ‘Seeing our History’ material is the complex nature of the concept of ‘work’.  Many, although not all, of the blind people in the Seeing our History material were those who were considered ‘unable to work’, because of other impairments or old age.  ‘Able bodied’ blind people at that time were often offered work in the workshops and asylums run by organisations such as the Edinburgh Blind Asylum: making baskets, ropes, mattresses and furniture.  Those who could not find work through the Asylum subsisted on income from a range of occupations and family support networks.  Some of these found work on the street, working as musicians, hawkers and turning mangles to assist with the weekly washing.  But work in the Asylum workshops was dependent not only on physical ability but on willingness to comply with the organisation’s strict moral code.  The Seeing our History project reports on the case of a man and a woman who were evicted from the Asylum because of their unseemly relationship.  They subsequently married and their story is powerfully told in ‘Feeling our History’.  This story is interesting to me because of the way in which access to work was entwined with moral behaviour.  Other workers lost their jobs at the Asylum because of alleged drunkenness or theft.  So a person’s ability to work was dependent not only on their physical and mental abilities but on their willingness or ability to meet strict moral expectations of behaviour*.

In my own research on appeals against refusal of benefits in the 1920s, I have found examples of blind people who had been working but were now trying to claim sickness benefits.  The discussion about their ability to work often focussed on whether or not work which had previously been available to them was still possible.  So we find a man who had been blind since childhood and who had worked for a local charity for blind people.  When he developed other physical health issues he was no longer able to do this job.  The adjudicator in his appeal decided that he was no longer fit for work, although they felt the need to add that he should ‘undergo some form of training for such light work as he can undertake’.  However, in another case, involving a young woman, it was felt that she should not be obliged to enter an institution for blind people to retrain as a basket maker or similar because this ‘would probably cause her nervous upset which would probably retard her recovery if not actually make her worse’

What does this tell us about ‘capacity for work’?  The stories in the Seeing our History project are mainly from a period before the 1911 National Insurance sickness benefit scheme.  They connect with those in my research because they reinforce, again, the appreciation that a person’s capacity for work can only be understood in the social context in which they live.  Two people with apparently similar impairments can be very differently capable of work, depending on what they have done before, their skills and education, their family support networks and, crucially, the work available to them.  Work may be unavailable because of the local labour market but it may also be unavailable because of the moral and other expectations of local employers.  Ideas about how and whether people should retrain for work also depends on ideas about men and women, their age and potential capacity for working in the future.

I am very pleased to have found the Seeing our History project, leading me to these fascinating stories and an insight into a creative use of archives to bring them to life.

* full information about these histories in Hutchison, I (2015) Feeling our history Edinburgh, RNIB Scotland and Hutchison (2015) Hearing our history Edinburgh, RNIB Scotland and on the project website

Using libraries

We’ve just celebrated national libraries day. I’m all in favour of that. Libraries are great places and many libraries, up and down the country, used creative ways to remind us of that at the weekend. But sometimes it’s easy to say that libraries are great without actually using them. It’s so much easier to get information online and download digitised versions of documents. Libraries can also help us with that by helping us to find things and by subscribing to electronic resources and then making them available to us all. Now and again we should go back into the buildings and remind us what they can do in a more old fashioned way.

One way that they can help is to provide space to write. When you are writing, you are constantly distracted by emails, texts, social media, even just thoughts ‘I need to reread that article’, ‘have I got a copy of that book?’, ‘which conference paper did I mention that in?’ ‘Who was it that told me about that?’ ‘I’m sure I had an example of that in one my documents’ or even ‘Must write a blog piece about this’. For just now I’m trying to avoid that (apart from the write a blog piece bit) by working in the National Library of Scotland. This library provides a quiet, largely distraction free, space, to just get on and work. The atmosphere helps. Surrounded by other people working away, apparently more industriously, it is difficult to avoid getting on with the task at hand.

Libraries also have books! Today I’ve been returning to some old appeal cases relating to sickness benefit in the 1920s. Some of the cases I’m working on are available electronically, digitised by Parliamentary Papers Online.(digital access available through many  libraries). Others are only available in the National Archives, but there is one little collection that was published in a book in 1923, which has not been digitised and I have to come to the library to look at them. I first looked at these a couple of years ago and took detailed notes but there were some things that I realised I’d missed so today I’m reading them again. It’s been a while since I’ve gone back to the originals but looking at them again reminds me what is so fascinating about them.

When I first looked at these cases I was interested mainly in how the appeal panels defined the idea of ‘incapacity for work’. That is still my main interest and the one that most of the writing from this project will focus on. However I am also interested in the appeal hearings themselves: who was there? What evidence did they think was important? What was the role of lawyers and other representatives? How did claimants find out about their rights? This is at the heart of my writing just now. I’ve made quite detailed notes on most of my cases but it wasn’t at the front of my mind when I last looked at this little collection from 1923. So today’s task was to ask those questions as I read them. I’ve found a few more lawyers, clearly attempting to influence the course of the proceedings but I’ve also found cases where there were no representatives. In these cases we sometimes see comments about the claimants’ lack of education and knowledge and the adjudicators trying to compensate for that. Occasionally the claimants appear to be just a little bit too knowledgeable and that might work against them. Today’s work has given me another glimpse into the past world of appeal hearings and some more examples to help us understand who was there and why and what difference that made.

But the library’s closing and the battery on my laptop is failing – I’ll have to come back another day.

Book reviews

I’ve recently published a couple of book reviews, one on the history of the ‘underclass’ and another on women and social security. These two books provide important background for my own work which concerns the history of concepts of incapacity for work and how that relates to policy on the ground and on the particular challenges for women claiming incapacity benefits. Here’s a brief summary of what I thought about them.

Welshman, J. (2013) Underclass: a history of the excluded since 1880 2nd ed.
Bloomsbury: London (review published in Social Policy and Administration)

Media of Underclass

Welshman’s book provides us with a guided tour of the concept of the ‘underclass’ since the late 19th century, moving through related concepts such as ‘problem families’, ‘unemployables’, ‘socially excluded’ to the recent Coalition Government’s idea of ’troubled families’. A lot of this is about language: the language that policy makers use to talk about social problems and how that relates to the ideas that researchers use to look at the same problems. They don’t often connect but these ideas really matter. Once a concept like the underclass takes hold it is difficult to escape from it. We see that in the field of disability benefits with the current media obsession with ‘benefit scroungers and ‘hardworking families’. There isn’t much evidence for either of these concepts but the ideas take hold never-the-less and make it much more difficult for real people to navigate the shark-infested waters of benefits claiming. Welshman’s book is important because it shows us how these ideas have developed over the last century.

Goldblatt, B. and Lamarche, L. (eds.) (2014). Women’s Rights to Social Security and Social Protection. Oñati International Series in Law and Society. Oxford: Hart Publishing. (review published in European Journal of Social Security)

 

Goldblatt and Lamarche, on the other hand, are mainly concerned with the present day. Their focus is on the difficulties that women have with accessing social security across the globe. The book reminds us that, across countries and across time, men and women’s participation in paid work and unpaid domestic and caring responsibilities is unequal and that this leads to unequal access to social security in old age or when paid work is not available. The book has a very broad reach, covering countries as far apart as China and Bolivia. There is a lot of detail for readers interested in particular countries but perhaps the most useful chapters are those that look at the issues from a broader perspective. These chapters provide useful overviews of the debates and may be particularly useful for readers who are looking for an introduction to the issue of women and social security with an eye to human rights and feminist analysis.

For the full reviews, see the links to the journals.

It is a privilege to have the opportunity to review books. Now I have to get on with some more.

Festive themes in the archives

I was inspired by a recent blog on burglaries at Christmas to see if there were any Christmas themes in my data. A simple search on my NVIVO files for the term ‘Christmas’ produced two results, one from 1914 and another from 1949. While adding a little Christmas spirit to the blog, both cases bring up interesting points about how eligibility for incapacity benefits concerns more than just the medical assessment of a person’s health.

A Christmas Day Brawl

In the case from 1914, the claimant had been involved in a fight outside a club on Christmas Day, had broken his leg and claimed sickness benefit. His approved society had refused benefit on the grounds that his incapacity arose out of his own ‘serious or wilful misconduct’ because the fall was the result of a drunken fight. The claimant appealed against this refusal and the appeal decision looked at the question of whether or not it was misconduct and whether the claimant was entitled to benefit. The Society also argued that, if the claimant had not started the fight, he ought to have taken his assailant to court to claim damages for the assault. There was no dispute in the case about the medical issues. Here’s what happened:

‘The Appellant was, on the afternoon of the 25th December 1914, in a working men’s club of which he is a member. Early in the afternoon there had been a dispute between the Appellant and a man named X over a game of cards and, at about 6 o’clock, after the two had left the Club the Appellant was found lying outside the door of the Club with his leg broken above the ankle. It was alleged by the Society that he had challenged X to a fight and had pulled him out of the Club for that purpose; that he had been the aggressor outside and had over-balanced himself in aiming a blow at his opponent and, in falling had broken his leg. The Appellant’s story on the other hand, was that he had left the Club first and had been followed by X who had called out to him to stop and had then broken his leg with a violent kick and had afterwards struck him more than once as he lay on the ground’

 

During the appeal hearing the adjudicators heard evidence from three witnesses: the claimant himself, ‘X’ who was the alleged assailant in the case and ‘Y’ who was a witness to the alleged fight. The case contains a long discussion of the dispute over the card game, the actions of the Club in refusing to sell alcohol to the participants and the adjudicators’ musings as to the likelihood of the dispute leading to a further fight outside. The adjudicators felt that it was more likely that X had started the fight since he was the one who had been accused ‘rightly or wrongly’ of cheating in the card game. They also discussed the likelihood of a man breaking his leg just by falling over or whether it was more likely that a leg would be broken as a result of a kick. There are several references to the amount of alcohol that each man had consumed. The claimant had ‘only one glass of beer early in the afternoon’, while X had ‘been drinking in a public house’ before going to the Club. They decided that they believed the claimant’s story, that there was no misconduct. They did not think that it was reasonable to expect him to take his assailant to court. This was irrelevant to the sickness benefit claim and so the claimant was entitled to benefit.

A Christmas Salesman

The other Christmas case comes from 1949 and concerned a man who was a self-employed salesman. He had broken his right hand and had claimed sickness benefit for two months on the grounds that the broken hand prevented him from carrying out his normal work. He was refused benefit on the grounds that he had continued to do some work, keeping his business going, and so flouting the rules which required claimants to ‘do no work’ while claiming benefit. He appealed to a local tribunal against this decision and, when he was refused again, he appealed to the National Insurance Commissioners. The published Commissioners decision gives us the outline of the case, and reveals the relevance of Christmas. In this case it was absolutely crucial. The claimant was a salesman who relied Christmas sales for his business to make a profit. He broke his hand in late October and was claiming benefit from then until mid-December, a period when he would normally be maximising his Christmas sales.

‘It is unreasonable – as in my case- to expect a self-employed man with stocks of Christmas goods laid in for selling to the shops to do absolutely nothing and idly watch the selling season pass by thus having his capital tied up in goods which will not sell the rest of the year.’

The Commissioners accepted his argument. Although he had attended to some book-keeping and tried to sell some of his Christmas stock, he was effectively not working over the relevant period and so he was entitled to sickness benefit. This case is interesting, mainly because it contains a useful discussion of the rules concerning working while claiming and how far a self-employed person could be allowed to keep their business ticking over while still being eligible for benefit. The question that remained for me was what on earth was he selling? The papers tell us that he was selling ‘Christmas goods’ and that he would be unable to sell them at other times of the year, that he was selling them to shops, that he normally drove around in a car carrying ‘heavy bags’ but we don’t know what the bags contained.

Information from:

National Health Insurance Commission (England) (1916) Reports of Decisions on Appeals and Applications under Section 67 of the National Insurance Act 1911 and Section 27 of the National Insurance Act 1913 Part III  Cd. 8239. London: HMSO,case 62
Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance (1955) Reported Decisions of the Commissioner under the National Insurance Acts Vol 1. London: H.M.S.O, CS 499 KL
Archive material from The National Archives file CT 11/25

Photographs from Getty Images for illustration only

 

 

Challenge Poverty Week

PrintIt’s Challenge Poverty Week.  I’ve contributed a blog post to ‘Let’s discuss Poverty’ a blog site with contributions from writers and academics across Scotland, writing about their research on poverty. There are blogs on women, sanctions, children, students, and one from me on history. Have a look here

Challenge Poverty Week is co-ordinated by the Poverty Alliance. Here’s what they say about Challenge Poverty Week  17-23 October 2015:

“More than 900,000 people in Scotland live in low income households. In a rich country like ours this is unnecessary and unacceptable.

Challenge Poverty Week is an opportunity for you to raise you voice against poverty and show what is being done to tackle poverty across. Organisations large and small supported Challenge Poverty Week last year, and we hope even more get behind it this year. 

The main aims of the week are to:

  • Highlight the reality of poverty and challenge the stereotypes about exist about it;
  • Demonstrate what is being done across Scotland to address poverty
  • Increase public support for more action to combat poverty 

We are encouraging as many groups and individuals to get involved in Challenge Poverty Week by organising activities or taking part in activities organised by others.”

For information on events go to http://povertyalliance.org/challenge_poverty

and on Twitter #CPW15

Red tape in the archives

I was in Belfast for the Social Policy Association annual conference.  The talk at the conference was all about austerity, poverty, stigma, the decline of the welfare state, the Budget.  There were excellent presentations from researchers at all stages of their academic careers.  There were discussions of ‘impact’, questions about whether or not social policy research makes a difference, how we can do it better.

Public Record Office of Northern Ireland

But my trip to Belfast also had another purpose: to have a look at some benefits papers in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, conveniently located next door to the conference, in another magnificent purpose-built building.  As with the National Archives in London and the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh, many of those using the Northern Ireland records are ancestor-hunters, looking up long lost family members using official papers of all kinds.  My hunt was for benefit claimants.  Throughout my research on the history of incapacity benefits,  I have often wondered what happened to the people who were refused benefits. Some of them appealed and some of them won their appeals but many didn’t.  In a collection of files in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland I have found out about some of them.  The Public Record Office holds files of correspondence to the Northern Ireland Prime Minister’s office in the 1920s and 30s, and there are about a dozen files concerning people’s problems with sickness benefits.

A Tale of Persistence

Here I found a man who claimed sickness benefit in July 1928 and was told he was fit for light work.  He appealed against that decision and the appeal confirmed the original decision.  He wrote to the Prime Minister asking for advice so that he could ‘procure justice’.  The Prime Minister’s Office confirmed that, since he had unsuccessfully used the appeal procedure, there was nothing more that could be done. So then he claimed unemployment benefit.  His unemployment benefit was refused.  He appealed against that decision and the decision was upheld. So he wrote again in March 1929 to the Prime Minister asking for advice.  He was told that all the appeal procedures had been followed correctly.  What to do next?  In November 1930 he wrote to the Prime Minister again about his unemployment benefit and asking whether, if he couldn’t get either sickness benefit or unemployment benefit, perhaps they could give him a job with the labour exchange.  The Prime Minister’s office replied saying that, since he had followed all the appeal procedures, there was nothing they could do about his benefit but that should a suitable vacancy arise, he would be considered for a job.  By August 1931, his persistence seemed to have paid off as his next letter concerned his dismissal from a two month temporary contract at the labour exchange.  Unsurprisingly there was nothing that could be done, since: ‘retrenchments are necessary and that those who can best be spared are the ones who are selected first of all for retrenchment’.

Fast forward to 1938 and we find the same man writing to the Prime Minster again asking for a job.  This time we are told that he worked for a temporary period for the employment exchange in 1934 but had been laid off again.  The file closes with a polite letter from the Prime Minister’s private secretary ‘regretting that there are no vacancies at present for which you could be considered’.  At that point he seems to have given up.

Learning from the letters

What did I learn from this file?  I learned a lot about this particular claimant. Over the course of the correspondence, which amounts to thirty-three letters altogether, I learned that he was married and had seven children, including three who were grown up and unemployed , that he had worked in the ‘shirt and collar trade’ and that he had a war injury of some kind from the First World War and that he was desperate to find work. One thing can be said for him and that is his tenacity.  I also learned a bit about the appeal procedures for sickness and unemployment benefits and how they operated in Northern Ireland in the 1920s, providing further evidence to support what I had found in the archives in London and Edinburgh.  There are a few more files like this in the Northern Ireland archives, though none quite so lengthy, which provide a glimpse into the everyday lives of people who were claiming sickness benefits in the 1920s and 30s.

Red tape

Even more exciting were some legal papers concerning an appeal to the National Health Insurance Commissioners.  These papers gave me detailed insight into the Dickensian legal procedure, complete with the original ‘red tape’.

These papers describe a young man’s, ultimately unsuccessful, claim for sickness benefit in 1913.  The papers are there by chance, having been deposited by the legal firm which represented him.  This case was particularly interesting because it seemed to be the same one that I had read about in a published version of the appeal decision, but this time with all the letters, backwards and forwards between the legal firm, the Approved Society and the National Health Insurance Commissioners.  There was even a copy of the final decision, still in its envelope with a stamp, addressed to the claimant.  In the short time I had, I made some hurried notes.

The conference, hosted by the University of Ulster, was held in the newly built Belfast Metropolitan College, in Belfast’s ‘Titanic quarter’, in the shadow of the stunning Titanic museum.  There wasn’t time for me to have a look round the museum, so I’ll have to go back another day, see the museum properly and read some more of those papers.